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Public and private education do provide a ladder of opportunity

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Monday, 6 February 2012

Who would have believed it - according to a secret paper on school funding written by Richard Teese from the University of Melbourne and leaked to The Australian last week, some schools are better resourced than others, some schools also achieve better results, and not all students are lucky enough to come from privileged homes.

As noted by Chris Bonnor (On Line Opinion 3 February) the Teese report received widespread coverage with state school activists like the AEU President, Angelo Gavielatos, using the report to argue that governments must not fund non-government schools.

While it is important to provide equality of opportunity and to redress disadvantage, what cultural-left academics and teacher unionists don’t understand is that we don’t live in a socialist utopia. Unfortunately, not all are equal in terms of ability and intellect and not everyone can be guaranteed success: especially in education.


Some students are more capable and more motivated than others, some parents work harder to advantage their children, some schools employ more effective staff, create a more disciplined environment, and have a more academic curriculum.

Welcome to the real world. While the mantra of the cultural-left is one of positive discrimination and equality of outcomes, as anyone who has read Orwell’s Animal Farm knows, ideologically imposed egalitarianism and the promise of equity for all do not work.

At least, though, Professor Teese is consistent in his opposition to merit and ability being acknowledged and his portrayal of an education system, supposedly, that reinforces inequity and disadvantage. In a 1993 book, Undemocratic Schooling, the argument is that education is a tool used by the elites to marginalise and dispossess the working class.

Drawing on a Marxist critique of education, espoused by sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu and the sociology of education movement, Teese rails against the existence of non-government and selective schools, the fact that non-government receive government funding and that not all parents can afford school choice.

As the saying goes, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. While the argument that Australia’s education system is riven with inequality and that Catholic and independent school reinforce disadvantage is attractive to the cultural-left, there is another side to the debate.

As proven by research carried out by the OECD, Australia is one of the most egalitarian countries in the world where there is a high degree of social mobility. We are not a class-based society where children are condemned to follow their parents’ footsteps.  One only needs to look at the way the children of post-war European migrants, and more recent arrivals from Asia, succeed academically and materially to understand that class is not destiny.


The one-time leader of the Australian Labor Party, Mark Latham, got it right when he argued that education provides a ladder of opportunity that helps overcome disadvantage and promote a fairer society.

Australian research also proves that socioeconomic background is not the most influential determinant of educational success or failure; equally as important are factors like student ability and motivation, teacher effectiveness, school climate and the quality of the curriculum.

It’s also the case that while there are wealthy and privileged non-government schools, the current socioeconomic status (SES) model of funding is based on need. Schools like Melbourne Grammar and Sydney’s Kings only receive from government 13.7 per cent of what state school students receive. On average, government school students receive $13,544 from state and federal governments while non-government school students receive $6,850 per student.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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The 'State' of our schools

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